[This essay is part of a special “free will week” at Scientia Salon. The Editor promises not to touch the topic again for a long while after this particular orgy, of course assuming he has any choice in the matter…]
Despite the question having been around forever, the topic of Free Will (FW) has been pretty hot lately, including several entries at Scientia Salon [1-4]. Personally, I find the philosophical aspect of the topic of Free Will a bit pointless (either we have it or we don’t), but references to questionable “findings” in neuroscience and claims of how FW beliefs impact ethics and social policy do interest me (quite a bit) and force me to beg everyone’s patience for yet another essay on FW. If you will, think of this as an entry on how not to interpret findings from neuroscience (or biology).
Let’s begin by cutting to the chase on the matter of definitions. First there is Libertarian FW (LFW), which holds a dualistic view of mind and brain and defines FW by the causal relationship between the two. Minds are situated somewhere other than the physical brain (perhaps being immaterial) and so can make choices independent of physical states related to the brain. You could say, “mind writes to body” and so it is as free an agent as you can get.
Then there is Anti-Free Will (AFW), often known as hard determinism. AFW also defines FW by the causal relationship between mind and brain (with a distinct nature for both), which is why I consider AFW a form of “scientific dualism.” In this case, the brain processes inputs/outputs based on physical conditions that are deterministic and so (they argue) exclude choice and FW. In contrast to LFW, AFW proponents would say “body writes to mind,” trapping mind as an epiphenomenal rider, a transitory set of hallucinations (a sense of control and freedom of choice) that are mere by-products of normal brain function.
Finally, along comes Compatibilist FW (CFW), which maintains that the mind and brain are essentially one and so defines FW based on the relationship between an intentional agent’s natural potential to obtain personal desires and their practical ability to do so. An agent’s natural potential can be restricted in practice due to physical impairment of normal processing in the brain (i.e., tumors), or the activities of other agents. Since multiple agents with cross-agendas are an extremely common phenomenon, FW is commonly interpreted as one agent’s freedom from coercion/manipulation by others.
Note that I am leaving out the kind of FW-skepticism (FWS) described by Gregg Caruso in the last two FW essays at Scientia Salon [3,4]. This is because FWS seems to fit somewhere between CFW and AFW (or CFW between FWS and AFW). Since I am still not confident about discussing FWS positions, it is up to such skeptics to figure out where they stand on my descriptions/arguments.
Redefining decisions as having no choice
Before getting to science, I need to address a definitional issue that tends to sidetrack discussions of FW and moral agency. While AFW and CFW agree on physical determinism, they may disagree whether “choice” exists in a deterministic Universe. While there may only be one choice possible at a certain moment given all inputs (as AFW proponents argue), isn’t that exactly what one would want from any decision-making system (ask CFW advocates): one choice (hopefully the best) from all alternatives?
According to CFW, in a deterministic system FW involves the ability to process a sufficiently large amount of information from potential inputs such that one can define the best choice from sufficiently large numbers of potential actions to obtain one’s desires (aka actualize one’s will). Lack of FW (or loss of agency) involves the absence or reduction of potential by restricting possible actions, information, or processing capacity such that agents can’t manifest their will as they would under normal conditions. From this perspective, the locus of control in decision-making (choice) is placed firmly within a brain’s processing capacity and its potential to actualize the will of the agent, except where other agents, direct physical impairments, or dramatic historical events significantly reduce that capacity.
AFW proponents (and some FWS’s [3,4]) maintain that this processing of information to actualize desire does not result in a “true” choice but merely “selection,” since in some “ultimate” sense all prior events leading to the selection of an action had to happen, making an agent’s selection pre-determined. Notice that this notion of an “ultimate” sense of choice subtly shifts the locus of control from the potential provided by a brain’s processing capacity, to the factors it had to process. Your brain does not process inputs; inputs process your brain. Thus an intentional choice (even if vastly more complex in its mechanics) is no better than a falling rock changing direction because it happened to hit another rock. Both simply had to go in the direction events demanded they must. Such proponents often go further, pointing out that even if selection of an action could be considered a choice, the desire (and processing capacity) underlying the choice was not itself chosen. One is still a prisoner of one’s nature (a “will” and decision system constructed by prior events), and so all choices are chained to that (not to you).
Fair enough. Placing the locus of control is largely a matter of perspective, and so it is not objectively wrong to take either view. However, if this “ultimate” view of choice is accepted, no one can ever be said to “truly” choose or exhibit FW, even in principle, as the level of freedom demanded by this perspective is not even granted to Gods!
Let me unpack that claim and its consequences. Gods are presumably eternal and live beyond time and space, always existing. That means they always had a nature (Will) and it was not something they could have chosen for themselves. So, whatever nature a God has, its relation to that nature has to be the same as humans to the nature they were born with: their initial desires were not of their choosing, and can only change based on subsequent events shaped by their initial desires.
Then, at some point beyond time and space (whatever that means), Gods do something. Once a God pushes that first domino (a product of its unchosen Will), the next act must either be wholly random or in response to that first cause-effect event. All that follows (until the end of that God’s existence, if any) must inherently be a response to the inputs that God receives from the unwinding chain of causes and effects. Otherwise, a God is nothing more than a random number generator hooked up to an action lever.
Thus the concept of “true” choice advanced by AFW advocates (free of all prior events) is a myth. It is an impossible expectation, whether one has a physical brain or a mind composed of magical energy beyond time and space. It might as well be called “fictional” choice, because a choice fitting those criteria will never be found.
All real choices require a confluence of events impinging on an actor such that a decision is mandated. That would seem to be a defining character of any choice, and LFW proponents do not argue otherwise. What they argue is that minds as nonphysical entities are impervious to certain physical events, while the nonphysical mind can cause physical events, and (let us not forget) nonphysical events can affect the mind and the physical world. They do not demand choices be context free.
It is then questionable to use the very defining characteristics of a choice as criteria for excluding something from being a “true” choice. It also smacks of a true Scotsman fallacy. And in any case, it seems unnecessary to use a fictional entity to bring down a (arguably mistaken) theory, particularly when that theory does not use or demand such an entity.
The following sections explain why, when we move beyond fictional capacities for making “ultimate” choices (that even Gods do not possess) to factual capacities involved with making real choices, CFW accounts bring something to the table for discussions of FW and moral agency.
Mistaking Experimental Signals for Decisions and Awareness for Mind
Proponents of AFW like to reference data emerging from neuroscience. Studies, from Libet onward, purportedly show that the brain is making decisions before our mind is aware of them, thus nixing LFW outright and even suggesting that brain ≠ mind (thus nixing CFW) .
I am not going to address these studies directly as that would take a small book. Suffice it to say that the correlations found do not necessarily license the conclusion that a point of “decision” was identified. And even if correlations were sufficiently high to suggest a causal relation exists between a specific brain region/activity and a specific decision/action that would still not undercut CFW… or even LFW!
That last point might be surprising, but on reflection it should be obvious. Just because the (disembodied) mind feels the decision later than a physical manifestation in the brain does not mean that the brain caused the action.
Taking a devil’s advocate position on behalf of LFW, the brain region identified could be the spot where the mind connects to the physical brain (like a string to the puppet). That the mind only “feels” the decision later is perhaps because its awareness is so linked to the body by habit that it has an errantly delayed sensation of the self. In short it confuses the physical sensation of a decision imposed on the physical brain (when the brain feels it) as being the “real” point of having made the decision (even though it was made earlier, elsewhere).
Or, it could be argued the other way around, that the region found is the “string” of sensation leading from the body to the disembodied mind which really does make the decision (later than the recording in the brain region). It is just that we can reliably match powerful “sensations” from that region, to acts the mind is likely to make. This is analogous to finding sufficient nerve activity in a toe (by a fire), before the foot is retracted. Did the nerve in the toe make the decision? No, but it is a reliable predictor of what the body will do next . And the retraction may even come before awareness of the pain.
Both LFW explanations for these findings align with the existential problem most LFW theists seem to have with the mind, that it is so drawn to the body by habit that it has lost awareness of itself. Hence the need to separate one’s true self (the mind) from bodily sensations.
Of course I’m not advocating LFW since there is plenty of evidence against disembodied minds from less demanding experiments than timed neural activity during decisions . But I do like CFW. So what do I make of those studies, assuming for the sake of argument that their correlations were meaningful regarding causation? My reaction is that it is interesting information but so what? What would a neuroscientist expect to find other than signals in a brain correlated with decisions?
On the issue of mind vs brain, just because the brain might process a decision for action before processing it for conscious experience, does not mean that the mind was not involved in the decision process. That is to conflate mind with conscious awareness, which CFW can reject as it links mind (or at least “you” as an agent) with the physical brain. Some, arguably most, decisions regarding actions are likely to be processed subconsciously, with those that are more important or require greater consideration/attention making it to higher levels of awareness.
Lack of awareness for some decisions would not negate the importance of such decisions (like they are done “without thinking” or more importantly “beyond your will”), nor does it suggest that conscious awareness has no influence in all decision-making. One criticism of such studies (and Libet’s in particular) is that they often do not demand much in the way of having to deliberate on a set of options that are important for you or your future . Libet-style experimental settings don’t elicit much concern, and so do not trigger the need for higher order consideration on what to do.
Still, we shouldn’t assume that scientists have actually observed decisions being made prior to conscious awareness, rather than detecting elements that must be present prior to making the decision or registering awareness. For example, the brain region responsible for the message “press button” might be active a while before a command decision “ok” (made in another region) allows it to go ahead (perhaps by relieving repression of the signal at a third brain region).
For experiments keyed to changes in signal strength what may be detected is the precursor of a specific action as it is offered for decision (which would change over time), rather than the area that is consistently active in making decisions (and so presumably holding a near constant signal). Or (for any experiment) perhaps it is the area with the greatest coherent signal (or change in signal) that makes it likely the decision encoded will win out over other options being offered for deliberation across the brain.
In both cases it may take time to “tally” the inputs, via activation/repression over different networks, before the system “recognizes” the final decision so as to report it (which it should be noted is a completely different action than simply acting on the decision itself). The brain is not a single wire affair, instead displaying supplementary systems and feedback loops running across many regions. A decision, then, may be best understood as a set of activities, which might or might not include awareness, rather than any single signal correlated at some earliest time point with some subsequent action.
This can be analogized to how sounds are processed by the brain. A sound close to one ear will enter that ear first and begin to be processed by the brain before the same sound enters the opposite ear and begins to be processed on that side. Yet you hear the sound only once. How? Mechanisms within the brain can modify signals (strength and speed), and perceptions are not necessarily reported in absolute real time (first come first serve). There can be a delay as a “representation” of the experience is constructed by hashing out signals. In this case you “hear” a construct of one sound with an added recognition that the source is located closer to one side than the other.
Presumably experiments would detect activity in the neurons that process information for the ear closest to the sound first. That would not mean that the “decision” the sound came from that side was “made” by those neurons. Rather, organized processing further down the chain in another region, using all relevant signals from both ears, creates the “decision” regarding location. (For those curious about how the brain accomplishes the feat of sound location, it involves two separate regions (the medial and lateral superior olive), which use two separate comparative criteria (timing of reception and loudness) .) It stands to reason that decisions of what to do could have equally complex decision matrices over diverse locations.
To be clear, I am not dismissing scientific investigations of decision-making, involving timing or locations of signals. They are important in trying to understand how the brain works. What I am trying to point out is that it is premature at best, and completely missing the target at worst, to use this data to advocate AFW positions on FW or choice.
Losing the mind for the neural activity
Hard determinists like to reduce everything to baseline causes and effects. While that is wonderful for accurate discussions of simple reactions, it is not as useful when discussing reactions taking places at higher levels of organization. For example, it works for how ion channels operate on the surface of a neuron, but not as well for how someone reading a book will come to understand (or feel about) a different culture, or decide the best way to install a new sink.
The human brain is an evolved system, with brain cells (both grey and white matter) networked in a way that their associations build representative models of the world around them. Learning involves the construction of extensive, integrated models of physical entities, internal states, and abstract concepts, by physical embodiment in cellular networks.
This system can identify objects and project potential responses based on their natural relationships in the world, and not merely “because neurons fire.” That means unless one is a neuroscientist studying specified brain activity, one is arguably better off discussing thoughts related to choice at the level of what the brain depicts rather than the biology lying below it, or one misses the “true” or functional cause-effect relationship in play.
Admittedly neuroscience has revealed that our awareness (external and internal) is not as great as we might believe, and that much of our decision-making is influenced by or takes place within subconscious systems. In other words, the model we hold of ourselves as agents in the world is not complete or wholly accurate. But humans were aware of that long before neuroscience emerged . And more importantly, that does not remove the fact that, subconscious or not, the brain is acting on collective representational information and not simply on the fact that “a bunch of neurons are firing.” Even the “tricks” mentioned by some determinists, like the smell of baking bread or certain colors influencing decisions, describe associations feeding into relations considered at the level of the represented subject.
While neuroscientists discover how the brain accomplishes these feats through the activity of neural networks (and that is important), that should not be confused with or used to dismiss what feats are being accomplished. Indeed, by limiting one’s interpretations to brute neural activity one fails to recognize the model of the self (mind) being created and utilized in meaningful decision-making by that neural activity. This would seem to be a crucial oversight!
So what is being accomplished? I would argue that the human brain’s evolved capacity to build extensive, complex, and highly interactive models of the world provides enough degrees of freedom regarding potential actions to warrant the term “choice” and so a FW that is worth talking about. This is especially true as the brain runs simulations that allows the prediction of future events and so the generation of novel behavior to obtain goals. This is a point AFW proponents seem to downplay in discussing choice. Human brains are to some degree capable of moving outside immediate input-output causal relations, by generating their own inputs (of estimated future events) for consideration in a recursive feedback mode.
This is arguably why people take time and seek relaxing environments (even sleep) before making important decisions or while working out complex problems. Sleep (some neuroscientists claim) helps consolidate experiences for better model building and resting states allow for more free association of thoughts with minimal distractions (external inputs). Time spent in consideration (simulation mode) potentially reduces the effects of the irrelevant, background noise of immediate experience (fresh bread, colors) in our decisions.
And the extent of human agency doesn’t end there. Our new fangled brains have evolved such sophisticated simulation capabilities that they can generate novel information by mixing and matching experiences to produce entities and associations that we can’t directly experience, have never existed, and possibly can’t exist (yet are captured in our cellular networks). In short, we exhibit creative thought.
Wholly fabricated entities and associations can develop and be considered in the mind, and manifestations of those things created in the world where they certainly never existed before. Whether real or not, it becomes a practical reality as if they did exist. People can sacrifice large portions of their lives to these things, and force others to sacrifice their lives to servicing them as well. From religious beliefs to popular works of known fiction (such as a scifi TV show), people can be so inspired by events within their minds that they shape the world around them (and so the future of the world) in their image.
And let’s not forget that these “fabricated entities” are not always wholly fictional! In addition to theoretical concepts about the world like general relativity and quantum mechanics (which are not directly observable but result in actual technology) we have engineered artificial elements, molecules, and even living organisms based on our imaginations to suit our interests.
With creativity, humans extend degrees of freedom of thought and (to a limited extent) action beyond their immediate environment, even beyond reality itself. This, if nothing else, should grant credibility to a concept of functional CFW. Human agents are more than simply the sum of their experiences, because they process experiences into novel beliefs and potentials not possible without their personal agency. One might say this presents a new option for causal relationships: “mind writes to the world and across other minds.”
After considering the how and what of brain activity, one might ask why brains developed (or require) this level of function?
While speculative, it seems likely that our vast processing capacity (with real world modeling and creative thought in support of decision making) developed as part of an “arms race” of agency. Dan Dennett suggests this sort of pressure for increased agency in a recent interview .
In a world of inanimate objects, there is no need for advanced processing, much less a sense of agency. Once systems emerge that are capable of reacting to the environment, better processing to enhance response naturally evolves. A crucial problem is then posed by the need to distinguish these reactive, animate objects from inanimate objects in the environment. Animate objects can be modeled with how they interact with the world (behaviors), which naturally lends itself to viewing others as intentional beings, acting toward goals. In short, we come to ascribe agency, and that sort of modeling easily extends to the self.
Dennett intriguingly posits defense against manipulation by others as an important reason for evolving advanced concepts of (self) intentionality. Agents need to take into account (model) what their own desires and required goals are, and what others might do in reaction to such knowledge, in order not to be manipulated away from obtaining them.
For AFW scolds of CFW, this is where the concept of CFW exhibits explanatory power and utility that AFW lacks. Evolutionary pressures drove increased degrees of freedom (potential ways to act) in organisms, leading to modeling of competitors as agents capable of intentional action (to be opposed), and ourselves as agents with our own intentions requiring freedom from coercion/manipulation by opposing agents.
Our sense of choice (locus of control placed within ourselves) and CFW are part of that model, and arguably an important part of the recursive simulations we run in order to make decisions in support of our own goals over those of others. To view oneself and others as “meat puppets” (as some AFW advocates state we are) places the locus of control entirely outside the actors working in the world and so is unlikely to generate accurate simulations. At the very least it would seem to make such simulations unnecessarily complex and communication about our simulations unwieldy.
Given all this, it is not clear what reason there is to artificially limit discussion of FW to the relative relation between one’s mind and physical brain (arguably an errant — inspirational if not very useful — product of our creative thinking). This is especially true when it is clear that competitive organisms actually exist with varying degrees of freedom in obtaining desires and that our brains have developed efficient modeling techniques regarding that agency.
Take home message
CFW, of course, provides relevant context and meaning for discussions of moral agency and social policy. In fact, it is the only theory whose definition of FW involves interactions between minds, a seemingly crucial part of any consideration of ethical and social policy.
From the point of view of CFW, LFW appears bankrupt given the decidedly strong physical connection between the brain and manifestations of the self. While AFW/FWS concepts of “true” choice are inherently flawed, CFW proponents can take onboard the understanding that prior events shape the course of events that follow, including decisions. Indeed, in considering manipulation by other agents CFW inherently possesses that perspective. As with FWS and AFW proponents, things like luck can be factored in while considering policies, only without the need to disregard humans as “intentional” agents.
The locus of control (at least for major decisions) is best considered internal to the agent due to 1) the recursive simulations and 2) the capacity for creative thought (novelty) that our brains deploy to attenuate external inputs and to oppose manipulation by others in pursuit of our goals. This is not invalidated just because some decisions may be made subconsciously or because the representative models are not wholly accurate. Using conceptions of ourselves as intentional agents our brains process information into action, including attempts to make personal dreams a reality.
Finally, human communication regarding future action (to ourselves and others) normally references what the brain produces (meaningful representations) and not how the brain produces it. It seems a mistake, or at least impractical, to demand we consider how to the exclusion of what. The strength of compatibilist FW is that it (as the names suggests) it allows one to use both sides of brain activity in their appropriate frame of reference.
Epilogue (fanfare for a cell-based soul or requiem for a meat puppet)
We are not meat puppets, but living, cellular decision engines. These cellular souls are poised at the culminating edge of all events that have come before. The history of the universe has gone as far as you, and while you live your little corner of it won’t go further without a decision made by you, even if that choice is to do nothing at all. From this edge onward, you peer into a wholly unshaped universe. So it is a certain mistake to view yourself trapped like a fly in the amber of a life story already petrified from beginning to end, as dead flotsam pushed about on the tide of history, or an object wholly manipulated by forces beyond your control. You hold a privileged role in this universe’s unfolding, having been allowed to see the possible directions it might go and selecting whatever path seems best to you. What you can choose may be limited compared to your greatest dreams and desires, but wherever your corner of the Universe goes next is unquestionably up to you.
And if, after all, the doomsayers are right and you are fated in whatever choice you must make, fate has to work through you all the same. So you might as well decide that fate favors your best deliberated opinion. Fate will never know the difference, but you will.
Dwayne Holmes is a PhD student studying Neuroscience at the Free University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, with prior degrees in philosophy and molecular biology. He is particularly interested in how science and philosophy impact our understanding of ethics (from molecules to social norms). He writes about brain and mind at Emerging Mind.
 Free will and psychological determinism, by Steve Snyder, Scientia Salon, 21 October 2014.
 Back to Square One: toward a post-intentional future, by Scott Bakker, Scientia Salon, 5 November 2014.
 Free Will Skepticism and Its Implications: An Argument for Optimism — Part 1, by Gregg Caruso, Scientia Salon, 22 December 2014.
 Free Will Skepticism and Its Implications: An Argument for Optimism — Part 2, by Gregg Caruso, Scientia Salon, 23 December 2014.
 See this video for a nice quick explanation of Libet.
 Principles of Neural Science, 4th ed., McGraw Hill (esp. Chapter 23 Touch, Chapter 24 Pain, Chapter 30 Hearing).
 As has been pointed out in prior FW threads at Scientia Salon, the fact that physical alterations of brain regions effect not only perception but also action and personality in predictable ways suggests a strong, meaningful connection between brain and mind.
 The description of subconscious activity from the brain was recognized as early as Hippocrates and extensively explored by Freud well before formal neuroscience began as a field of study.
 The truth about free will: Does it actually exist?, Salon, 28 December 2014.